Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Melide to Santiago de Compostela - the last 51 kilometres. 22nd Sept.,2015

 By late morning my throat feels sore and I'm blowing my nose openly onto the tarmac. Sweating profusely I'm beginning to feel as I'm 'going down with something'. Was it the bug that hit me in the mouth yesterday and disappeared down my throat or some other kind of bug?

  I make good time, and am soon at my halfway point of Portomarin, and the speedy descent off the higher ground down through the mists makes me cold once more and I stop to put on  a warmer top layer.

 Crossing to the other side of the river the climb begins again and the guide book says stick to the road. The trucks are few but the car numbers increase and I warm up again steadily climbing up and moving from the traffic lane into the wide 'cycle path' at the edge of every major Spanish road I have cycled so far. Most of these side paths are at least 1 metre wide, are mostly free of chippings, stones and bits that might puncture, or worse, tear the tyres. The Spanish roads have, by and large, been very impressive indeed. Especially the huge road building programmes and motorway intersections with gigantic roundabouts, around which I have often been alone when pedalling. I'm left to reflect for whom these roads are built, and with whose money?

 By a hostal-pension called Pension A Los Dos Alt Alemans (!) I stop for a drink, undo one of my two Vaude pannier bags and go into a little shop to buy some water. As I set off having had a rest and drink I see a lone pilgrim photographing one of the Cocquille shell adorned direction posts. 'Buen Camino' I say to him as I pass, and he responds,
'Oh? Yeah, Bon Kamino!'
I say I recognise the accent, and ask where he's from?
'Wandsworth, well tell a lie, west London now, but London, yeah. I'm Ben.'
'Oh', I say, 'I was born in the London Borough of Lambeth, so we're neighbours, sort of, a generation or so apart....'
He laughs and I cycle as slowly as I can to keep at his walking pace and we travel together, talking of London, the breweries and craft beers, and the closure of Young's Ram Brewery inWandsworth, the few Britons we have met on The Way, and that this is his 3rd and final stage, having done two previous stints of fortnight pilgrimage over the previous two years. He's looking to finish by Friday as his girlfriend is flying into Santiago to join him. He enjoys solitary walking but I gain the impression that some of this has actually been quite lonely. We travel together for a half hour or so, and come upon a fountain where I decide to refill one of my flasks. At that point I discover the open pannier bag strap, and somewhere back behind me, my Arc'tyrix black fantastic soft-shell inner jacket Homme XL  - in mountain gear magazine jargon - is nowhere to be seen. It has flown. I can only hope someone benefits from finding it. And from the IKEA Allen key in the tiny pocket on the upper arm that was perfect for quickly lowering and raising the saddle stem.

 Along the way can be found a whole host of small barns, farm buildings and village houses where small businesses have been set up to feed and water the pilgrim and to also satisfy a more religious need, hence the offering by some of Scallop shells, often beautifully painted. 

 At Melide I feel like I have cycled enough for the day and it will leave me only 51 kms to cycle before reaching Santiago. Eugen, the German I cycled with on my first day, had emailed to say he felt like he was being pulled towards Santiago, and the sense of that was quite emotional. Indeed it is true. But in truth right now I feel like shit!

 As I ride off the Camino there is a sign saying Pension Hostal, "!Nuevo!" and I spot 2 bikes parked inside the chain link fence by the door and two men sitting under parasols chatting. Yes, one says, they have accommodation, there is a garage for bikes, and washing facilities. There is also ample space for the still damp linen from Marcella's to be hung and dried in the strong breeze and sunshine. Two large dormitories are available but few showers and toilets, and I meet a Spanish rider who speaks French as does the North African Spaniard who runs the place. In all there are 4 of us, spaced apart in our dormitory that sleeps 27. Gear washed and hung out to dry I go into town in search of a pharmacy, but they will not sell me any paracetamol, I am left wondering if it's because I have no doctor issued prescription. I still have 3 or 4 left, so buy a large bag of oranges and look for an attractive 'Pulperia' for dinner, as Marcella had said this town specialised in Octopus Dinners! As I walk the town I spot a Mexican couple I have seen and waved to on a few occasions, she looks fit to drop. I stop them and tell them I have found a reasonable bike loving Hostal with plenty of space but she says they have to go on to their reserved accommodation at Arzúa still another 14 kms and she admits to being very tired but they need to get there before dark.

  I soon find a good looking traditional Pulperia complete with huge boiling pans of les Meduses, and the charcoal filled grill and metal hooks for hanging the ugly bastards as they sizzle. I eat a full wooden platter of the sliced octopus, and a bowl of green pimientos quickly sizzled in olive oil and sprinkled with coarse salt. Delicious. After a bottle of Rioja crianza, shared with Gerhard, another German pilgrim and his beautiful Icelandic companion, whose name sounded like Owzer.... (Owzer,Owzer,Owzer) ... I felt ready for a good night's sleep, but it wasn't going to happen. The common cold has arrived and, strepsils in mouth, I turn, though corkscrew would be a better term, restlessly.

 At 8am or so, I am awake and as the other pilgrim cyclists leave I pack and am out on the road and climbing! Always in the morning; uphill. I have 51 kms or so to reach Santiago de Compostela and although it is, technically downhill, there are a number of hills to be encountered on the way. It is cold, damp and a blanket of grey cloud covers the area although it could well be burned off by the sun. It could worsen and rain Galicia is, after all very green and damp. 

 After about 2 hours of what seems more than undulating road it starts to rain. I have passed the old grey haired guy I have seen on the road for the past few days, the young couple from Hawaii that I have passed each day start to acknowledge my "Hola!" He smiles as I pass on an uphill stretch while he pushes hard and drags behind him an odd trailer contraption with two small suitcases mounted.

 On the outskirts of Santiago it is now raining hard but the pull of the city and the goal itself  seems incredible. The guide book tells me the route is very busy so better to take the 'Chemin Marcheurs' which is by turn, tarmac and hard, reasonably wide gravel paths. It seems a bit risky with the type of tyres I have. They should be able to take this terrain quite easily but I wonder if I am tempting fate, having ridden so far without any mishap.

 By now the day tripping 'peregrinos' have joined the long line of walkers, some not even realising they are on a road and wander into the path of trucks and delivery vehicles that very likely have to negotiate around such pilgrims each and every day. Not for the first time do I wonder at the patience of these Spaniards who see these pilgrims in their thousands each day, every day.

 There is though a sense of being pulled, drawn towards the city. It is really very moving. At the same time I can't believe I have ridden over 890 kilometres. Not so surprising given these pavement signs throughout Spanish cities and major towns on the Camino to guide the pilgrim. 

  I had pre-booked a hotel-hostal on the Camino proper, easily find it and their facilities to store an later dismantle my bike and stuff it in its bag. Having checked in and changed I ride into the city towards the Cathedral, to the Correos (post office) to collect my bike bag, then to the Renfe train office to buy my rail ticket back to Hendaya and Baiona/Bayonne for the following day and finally to visit the Oficina de Peregrinos where I queue for my certificate. At the Correos office I was asked to take a desk number and await my turn. I had visions of this taking hours. Minutes later I am called to the desk where I present my copy of the form issued by the Correos office in Puenta de Reina some 10 days or so ago. Within a minute my box is sitting in front of me, and I have my bicycle bag. A first rate service. I gave them no notice as to when I might collect it, and I have it within minutes of my arrival. The train ticket is equally easy to buy and cheap too. €47 for an eleven hour across Spain rail journey. Lastly the Oficina. After queueing for about 45 minutes or so, I turn to check that my unattended bike is still within sight and hear...

 "Ugo!" And there in the crowd behind me are Roberto and Margaretta. I go to say hello and am gripped in a bear hug by this tall grinning Italian gabbling at me in his native tongue. 

 When I return having received my certificate there is the flash of camera as they photograph me. I await their collection and am happy to photograph them. On the steps of the Cathedral they find me once again this time photographing Modestine.

 So that is my Camino finished. What have I learned? Loads, about other pilgrims, about Spain, about people in general and charity. Kindness; for the mantra of my Camino has without doubt been "The Kindness of Strangers."

 I shall write a short epilogue at some stage once the reflections cease to tumble around in side my head, and settle down into some semblance of order.

Monday, 28 September 2015

The Downhill started here! - Marcella's Casona de Sarria

 Once again it is cold, but today also now damp as is Galicia. The climb out of Sarria is not at all welcoming; it is heating me... but not in a good way. If I  didn't know better I'd think I was very hungover. I hadn't slept with the rude Chinese talking at normal volumes at 4.44am and having made noises I wouldn't otherwise believe possible. The snoring had started from one of the Chinese bunk beds, and the other two joined in. I don't know how it happens that someone is able to make such noises with the human body merely by breathing and still sleep, all the while keeping me and some others no doubt, awake. There must surely be extra tubes and flaps in that individual. 

 Having said that if course, I may have slept at some point during the night and snored myself, but I do not recall sleeping. As I lay there listening to the never ending rattle, snore, snug, blow, hiss, hollow rumbling, whistling and snorting I start to hallucinate. The dream sequence I had I thought at the time to be delirium... Visions of John Cleese and his Holy Grail character saying "I fart in your general direction...Ah tol' 'im I fart in eez general direction, he he he..."

 Some while during the night the three Spaniards decide the Chinese should not have a complete monopoly and competed for snoring awards. I was aware that quite late I was lying there laughing quietly to myself in disbelief, that such a complicated array of noises could be made. I stifle a laugh and what I fear might be a loud fart in retribution and realise that anyone else awake would take me for an imbecile and not speak to me at breakfast.

 Eventually I do sleep because 4.44 happens and they start to chat. This really is an early 'pilgrim' start. But there are four other people in beds trying to sleep if no longer actually in the act of... Torches are lit, conversations struck up - I "shush!" the bastards loudly and it has some effect. They gather their packs and go out into the hall, continuing their conversations there, and what's more, opening and closing doors to the dormitory and bathrooms, without using door handles! This is too much!

 At seven or so I awake once more and realise immediately I left my washed gear outside and it will be damp.

 Marcella puts it into her tumble dryer while I breakfast.

 At breakfast I share a table as is the pilgrim Way, with a family of four from Columbia, the two adolescent kids speaking very good English, having studied in Wales for their Masters, the parents speaking as little English as I do Spanish. The three Spaniards who also snored join us; the party of six American women are at their own table and everyone comments on the amount, and variety of, the breakfast. Ham, sausage, cheese, croissants, breads, pancakes, fruits, juices, tea and coffee, chocolate, biscuits, jams and a delicious homemade hot chocolate sauce made by Marcella to be spread over bananas on the pancakes. All this for €4... 

 As the pilgrims depart and gear is being dried, I ready the bike and pack the bags, Marcella comes outside to smoke another cigarette and we chat. She asks how I came to be doing The Way. She tells me she and her husband had had very good well paid jobs in Madrid; they had everything they wanted, they had their apartment and little place in the country and many friends they saw and socialised with. But there was some lack of direction and meaning in this lives. They wanted something else and then she lost a baby. She was very angry with God. Her husband had made the Camino a few times, and encouraged her to do likewise but she never got on with it. As the financial problems grew in Spain they decided a new way of life was what was wanted. I understood exactly what she meant having been through that same questioning myself many years before. 

 Eventually she did complete The Way as she referred to the Camino, using its English title, and she and her husband decided they wanted to make that their lives. The sold their apartment, the country place, the cars, the motorcycles, they resigned their jobs and came to Sarria where they found a delapidated place that she said had found them. They bought it and renovated it all themselves, bringing in artisans for those skills they had not got. She showed me photos of the property as they found it and it is hard to imagine that, and the new one I had stayed in, being one and the same. She said that certain people doing The Way, the Camino, who stayed there left a little of themselves there. A lot took something with them. I told her I felt this was the best place I had stayed in the two weeks I had been on the Camino and that the ambiance at breakfast and the sense of comradeship amongst all the 'pilgrims' was palpable, that it was like one big family. I also said I thought she made it like that for people, each day.

 It was now light and I should be hitting the road and the pathways, my gear was dry and I packed that, and as I said goodbye Marcella said, "I'd like you come back and bring your wife." And then she said,

" Can I kiss you?"

 She kissed me on each cheek. 

 I unlocked Modestine and lead the bike out onto the road. It was getting brighter and I could see the forms of the hunchback-like pilgrims ahead of me.

Tuesday, 22 September 2015

To Sarria - Sunday 20th September.

It was another full blue sky but cold early start, after a substantial breakfast that I had been given the freedom to make and Vilafranca was in the shade of the mountain as would be the long start towards Vega and my eventual day's goal of Sarria.

The shade stayed for longer than I wanted as despite warming up, it made for more cold than cool. The road snaked up underneath the huge impressive struts and pillars of a new motorway overhead that pierced the mountains, tunnelling through and bridging the deep shady valleys we pilgrims and the villages through which we passed were in. Soon enough I came out into open sunnier valleys and continued up through villages. In one I cycled past a young man pushing a wheelchair in which sat the twisted form of someone wrapped against the cold making their pilgrimage for very different reasons to mine and, I imagined, those of a great many others. I said hello, and wished them good day and a good Camino, and the young man pushing returned my greeting. I was immediately reminded of the pilgrim I had seen the previous morning. 

She was an elderly lady, quite small and white haired, with a bent back. She was pulling a large bag behind her with both hands gripping the handle of what is best described as one of those large wheeled 'team' bags most often seen being dragged through airports by 'gap year' travellers. And this was on a flattish, stoney track that was no more than a path, heading towards the mountains. I remembered the two young women in front of me trying to get past the old woman and saw as they gave each other quizzical looks. I remembered thinking then that this Camino is not a new, latest trend hike for the moneyed youth of the rich western world who no longer feel safe going to the Middle East, or parts of the Far East now, and are looking for some kind of story adventure. This has been a pilgrimage route for a thousand years.

On a bend  in the road above me I spotted a cyclist resplendent in his sporty cyclist outfit. He waved and I assumed he was in trouble but as I came closer I saw another cyclist with him, a woman, but he called over and said 'sun!' We greeted each other and he introduced himself in Italian as "Roberto, Bob!' and his wife, Margaretta. They were riding tandem and he indicated, with his hands behind his head that she sat at the front working while he rested behind and did nothing. She laughed, but still jabbed him the ribs. They had driven from Milano, with the bike on the roof rack, left the car at León where they started their camino. 

After warming ourselves in the sun it was time to go on and I continued onwards and upwards towards the col. Each time I thought I was there I'd reach a bend and see yet more bends ahead. 

At one point a thin-tyred lightweight racer in Team SKY went up past me with a greeting and a 'Buen Camino'; a large group in single file of motorcycles descended fast, one of whom on a deep-throated roaring Harley-Davidson gave a salute acknowledging my effort, which I very much appreciated. It had happened before, van drivers, truck drivers in towns, on country roads, hooting to wave Buen Camino; it was unmistakeable. When one hoots to say get out of the way, they rarely smile.

After a little over 2 hours climbing, Pedrafita do Cebreiro came into view. A busy town with many guarda civil standing about joking amongst themselves and some of the locals. Now I was in Galicia, having crossed from Castilla-León. As I took a short break above the town I looked down onto a scene no doubt repeated throughout mountain villages all over Europe at harvest time. Cows, groomed, stood or lay tethered on straw awaiting buyers; various marquees and tents were pitched nearby and throngs of people milled about while the strains of a brass band lifted up towards me. I have seen similar September events throughout France, Switzerland and Italy. They all follow the same pattern; the booze tents selling small glasses of local wine and beer, with some sort of sausage stuffed into a portion of baguette. I have to admit I thoroughly enjoy them.

I ate a small croissant, drank more water, finished the last of my Kendal Mint Cake, bought last May in Yorkshire and carried on towards Alto San Roque, where I was joined by Roberto & Margaretta. They seemed elated and Roberto greeted me like an old friend. A mountain had been attacked, tackled and beaten. Or so we thought. 

There, stood a huge fabulous statue to the 'pilgrim' continuing against the elements. A reminder of what this journey really is as if one needed a reminder but it wasn't over yet. The road having started to descend, climbed once more. Sharper than I thought, until I reached Alto de Poio. And the relief was fantastic. Elation. 

The highest point on the Camino and the last of the three mountain ranges the Camino de Santiago crosses. Another stop for more fuel intake, this time in the form of a soda type fizzy drink... oh, how I wanted a beer, two beers, but as I had a good distance to do I had to remain sharp. Not relaxed at this point. Refreshed, rested and having had an enjoyable chat with a couple of French guys walking from Brittany, I could start to descend but it wasn't all plain sailing, the road did undulate over the remaining 22km, more than I expected, but as it descended it passed a magnificent Benedictine monastery at Samos. Worth a beer stop that was, as I'd only now got another 11km to go.

I arrived in Sarria, a closed town on this Sunday and became frustrated looking for my pension bed for that night and once again the kindness of strangers became evident. One not only providing a map, but drawing carefully a line to my accommodation. 

It was worth it. La Casona de Sarria (should have been called La Casona de Marcella) was found. I encountered the owner, was directed to the garden to park Modestine in all safety and he signed me in, I paid my €10 for a bunk bed, agreed the €4 for breakfast and then his wife entered, introduced herself as Marcella and said, "you look like you could do with a beer, shall I get you one?" And with that she went off and quickly returned with a cold can of beer. What a delight! I was then shown to the bunk room, chose the lone single bed in it, dumped my gear and went down to wash and hang out the sweat soaked cycling gear of the day. As I was hanging in out, Marcella brought me another beer and started to tell me about the various places to eat in town, and then mentioned  as a throw away name, the Hotel Roma 3* with its Michelin restaurant that offered a pilgrim menu for €16. That'll do I thought and only a short walk along the overgrown river running beside the Casona. 

I declined the menu. Many of the pilgrim menus are very similar despite being extremely good value, but they often lack the green stuff I felt I needed. 

I started with Iberian dried ham on tomato & salt toast, continued with coquille st jacques, fried in olive oil with garlic and pimientos, with the most beautifully tasting rustic bread for dipping and the main course was whole oven baked sea bass, with boiled potatoes & pimenton. Veggies on the side & salad. A good bottle of local Galician Tinto helped it all along and I finished with flan. A fabulous deep egg flan custard made with what seemed a like a dozen yolks! I was never going to sleep after all that!

While I ate all that I listened to the noise of people screeching their delight at what I knew not, but evidently these pilgrims weren't wearing sackcloth and ashes. And I took in some of the restaurant's fine décor.

Monday, 21 September 2015

Astorga to Villafranca del Bierzo (wine!)

At Rabanal del Camino I stopped for a coffee and pastry, and there watched as a tall, lean very slightly older Englishman, parked his bike, padlocked it, removed various packs from it and made his way into the albergue and ordered the Full English. In this case though, laughingly the café owner made coffee with fresh milk, and gave him bread, tortilla & pastries and I watched as he enjoyed it. 

I had café con leche, and a large sugary, nutty, delicious pastry knowing full well I would be burning it off fairly quickly with the climb to come. As we engaged in conversation he seemed the kind of man to see the funny side and take delight in enjoying the unusual and we decided to attack the climb together. 

This should be, I calculated, 80km - pah! That's what almost exactly about 50 miles; I can do that! 

Chris, let's call him Chris, was only going as far as Ponferrada. Probably a wise move as his hired bike was making some annoyingly weird noises and he may need a bike fixer sooner than later, besides I was counting on the 15km of non-stop downhill, to recover from the climb. We were about 1100m altitude and the climb would be to 1450m over six and a bit kilometres. Not much I brazenly thought and indeed the road was good, not much traffic and if the electricity pylons were taken out of the picture one could have been in bonnie Scotland, low rounded hills, heather in flower and pines; all resting under a cloudless sky. The road twisting and turning and our conversation soon got us to the top which we decided must be an area used for specialist military training given the British flag, with regimental stamps, signatures from Colchester soldiers, endorsed Baghdad 2009, as well as a flag of an American Airborne Division and their Spanish and Italian comrades, hanging in the café bar close to the top. 
The views from the top made the climb worthwhile and soon we were whizzing down the mountain's otherside to lunch on pulpo and boiled potatoes in olive oil and pimenton and an enormous beer in frozen glasses. A fruit salad seemed to balance matters. 

We continued down to Ponferrada where we said our goodbyes and thanked each other for encouragement and company on what had really now become The Way. I continued and got lost although not without some benefit to Modestine, my bike, when I found a car wash and for €1 gave it/ her a good high pressure spray, cleaning off the sandy dust that had become concrete like and encrusted. The remaining day's ride became a slog, with more short climbs and being choked by old small smoking tractors laden with both white and black grapes for the harvest being brought in. I forgave them considering what an important job it is. 

And then the village of Villafranca was reached, a small restaurant found, delightful fresh white wine poured down grateful throat, followed by an excellent fish soup and then "Sauce de Truite" which I couldn't make out until a cold grilled trout arrived that had been marinated after grilling, in white wine, herbs and black pepper. Delish. Then followed  dessert, a black cream cake that was superb and demanded a dessert wine. Could I make myself understood? Eventually one of the waitresses said, 'sweet?' Yes! And she brought a bottle and poured a glass of Malaga Virgen. I'd never known it before and suddenly a Britsh band, Phil Collins alta ego band, Brand X popped into my mind and all was good. Check out Brand X - Malaga Virgen -- 1980's?

I found my accommodation, the old dear asking what time I'd be leaving and when I said early and its Domenica, she showed me where all the coffee, croissants and juice could be found and left me to it. I slept really well. 



Sunday, 20 September 2015

'Orrible 'ellish 'ostal

On Friday morning just before sunrise at 3 minutes after 8am I cycled away on a freezing morning from the Horrible Hellish Hostal where I had dined on cold pig & sliced pimentos covered, not as one would expect, in olive oil, but a greasy oil more used to fuelling diesel vehicles. It glistened in the overhead strip, bright lighting. 

I decided the main course of beef slices with a few chips shouldn't be eaten let alone photographed. The waiting staff/owners had begrudgingly let me hang my wet clothes, washed in a shower tub in the smelly bathroom down the darkened hallway, in the locked backyard, amongst the broken beercrates, broken glass and bottle tops.  I assumed the vicious German Shepherd dog wanted a job guarding them. 

I was glad I had invested in the fetching black yoga/fitness/hanging out in the street café stretch tights. It wasn't that much above freezing until 9am. Those apart I was dreading the distant hills and Cruz de Ferro. If only to avoid the space age spirit geeks with their freak flags attached; their messages and nationalist  flags, to the 'gods'. 

Léon to Astorga

Seem to have left most of the walkers behind. Just Modestine alone on the path  with traffic oneside and fields of maize on t'other. 

If I came back here to Villarres de Orbigo. 
All I needed was a little information and the welcome, the calm awaiting was palpable. But on. A picnic lunch with the remnants of a bottle of Peregrino Tinto, a grabbed conversation with Julie from Chicago about the recently caught loval serial killer and on across baked orange earth to Astorga and Gaudí's awful Palacio, according to received opinion. 
And then on again to the Hostal from Hell. Servicio? We don't comprendo...